What defectors say about the lives of North Korean women

Many of North Korea’s women suffer daily abuse and injustice, and there’s no sign that the situation is improving. In interviews with both male and female defectors, we hear about violations of basic rights that women inside North Korea face as a matter of routine.

Some interviewees talked about their ordeals in the face of domestic violence. One participant expressed her relief when her husband died after more than 20 years abusing her. According to her, there is no redress for North Korean women who are subject to ongoing violence within the household, which is often seen as legitimate treatment. Out of fear, most women suffer in silence in a society that has no term for sexual harassment.

Feeding starving families is largely left to women outside the formal workforce, who are subjected to less government control. These women are left to slip through the official system and get involved in black market trade or informal markets known as “Jangmadang”. Worse, some husbands take the goods their wives buy to exchange them for alcohol, even if their family has nothing to eat. If they do not, they are punished with abuse.  One participant described how North Korean women often call men in the household “guard dogs” – tough figureheads who stay at home making no particular contribution.

Sexual violence is also a common problem inside the army. Being able to join the Worker’s Party of Korea is an essential pathway to a secure, successful life in North Korea, and a major reason for women to join the army is to become a member of the party. Senior male officials frequently exploit this as a means to manipulate and harass young women, threatening to block their chances of joining the party if they refuse or attempt to report the abuse.

Female hygiene also remains a serious issue. Female soldiers are not given the chance to wash or change during training outside; my interviewees talked about women in the army being given wound dressings to use instead of sanitary towels. Things are even worse for ordinary female citizens, who have to make do with any materials available, such as off-cuts from men’s used vests or socks.

If they get pregnant unintentionally, women get the blame. Thus, many pregnant women use a range of dangerous methods to abort: tightening their stomach with an army belt to hide their growing pregnancy, taking anthelmintic medicine (antiparasitic drugs designed to remove parasitic worms from the body), or jumping off and rolling down the high mountain hills. Unsurprisingly, it’s common to find fetuses in army facilities’ toilets.

[Hyun-Joo Lim, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Bournemouth University, writing in “The Conversation”]

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